BRIA 17 3 c The Military Confronts the Harassment of Women and Gays

Bill of Right in Action
Summer 2001 (17:3)

Military Authority

BRIA 17:3 Home| The French Army Mutinies of World War I | Truman, MacArthur, and the Korean War | The Military Confronts the Harassment of Women and Gays

The Military Confronts the Harassment of Women and Gays

Fifty years ago, the U.S. military took the lead in seeking to end racial discrimination in America. Now, the military is taking on the fight against the harassment of women and gays in the ranks.

A little more than 50 years ago, the U.S. military placed African Americans in segregated units. In 1948, President Harry S. Truman issued an executive order integrating the military services. The military was fully integrated during the Korean War, but it still had racial problems. Many career officers opposed integration. Racial prejudice and discrimination stirred conflict within the ranks. To build a more cohesive fighting force following the Vietnam War, the military took steps against racial discrimination . It adopted a policy that denied promotion to anyone who exhibited racist behavior. It instituted an affirmative action program to promote qualified minorities to senior officers. Today, the U.S. military stands as one of the most thoroughly integrated organizations in U.S. society.

Currently, two other groups--women and gays--are seeking full integration into the military. Although they have met opposition, both groups have made substantial progress. Women now serve in most units, but are excluded from many combat positions. After years of banning gays from serving, Congress in 1993 instituted a "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, which has made it easier for gays to serve.

Along with these breakthroughs, one problem that has arisen is the harassment of women and gays in the ranks. Surveys have shown that harassment of women and gays is widespread throughout all the armed services. Top civilian and military leaders have confronted the problem head-on. They have made it clear that, like racial discrimination, harassment of anyone wearing an American military uniform will not be tolerated.

Integrating Women Into the Military

Women joined the military services during both world wars, but only in segregated auxiliary corps. They served mainly as nurses and support personnel. In 1948, the Women Armed Services Integration Act admitted females into all branches of the military, but limited women to no more than 2 percent of those in the armed forces. Moreover, servicewomen were excluded from all combat roles and most other jobs traditionally held by men. Most women ended up in clerical and medical positions.

When the draft ended in 1973 (the same year that American troops left Vietnam), all the military services suddenly had to actively recruit to keep up their strength. Consequently, the 2 percent rule was lifted, and women began to enter the military in numbers never seen before. In addition, more jobs opened up to them, but still not those related to combat.

About 35,000 women served in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. In many cases, women held combat support roles at the front lines of fighting. Following the war, the Army and Navy adopted the Air Force practice of training male and female recruits together. (The Marines still train them separately).

In 1994, women were allowed to enter many more combat-related jobs. For the first time, women flew combat aircraft and served on most Navy ships. But females were still excluded from "direct ground combat" positions in the infantry, artillery, and tank units. These combat positions amount to about 30 percent of the jobs in the military. More importantly, because experience in a combat role is closely tied to advancement in rank, women do not have the same opportunities as men to be promoted, especially to command positions.

Today, 200,000 women actively serve in the U.S. military. They are a distinct minority, making up about 15 percent of all personnel in the armed forces. Some critics object to the "gender integrated" military. They argue that men and women training, living, and working together undermine unit bonding and combat readiness. Others, however, agree with the view of former Secretary of the Army Togo West Jr.: "Women are here to stay. If we are going to have a successful Army we must be able to pull from the widest available pool of talent."

Sexual Harassment of Women

In 1991, the Tailhook Association, an organization of U.S. Navy pilots, held a convention in Las Vegas that ended in a drunken frenzy of sexual harassment. Male Navy officers fondled, slapped, and stripped more than two dozen women, half of whom were also officers. Making things worse, the Navy tried to cover up what had happened.

Before long, the press began reporting incidents similar to the Tailhook episode in the other branches of the armed services. The reports made it clear that sexual harassment of females by males was a problem in the new "gender integrated" armed services. But another shocking incident occurred five years later. It shook the belief that men and women could successfully train and work side-by-side in the same military units.

At the Army training facility at Aberdeen, Maryland, a dozen male drill instructors were accused in 1996 of raping and sexually abusing 50 female trainees. A sergeant was eventually convicted of raping six women and was sentenced to 25 years in prison. Others were found guilty of lesser offenses.

The Aberdeen case was all the more shocking because the Department of Defense as well as the separate services had for some time attempted to end sexual harassment against women. In a number of surveys beginning in the late 1980s, the military learned that more than 70 percent of servicewomen knew of someone who had been sexually harassed. In 1991, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney (now vice president) issued clear policies making it illegal to sexually harass anyone in the military. Cheney also established training programs to identify, prevent, and investigate complaints of sexual harassment. The military defined this as any unwanted sexual conduct that created a hostile or offensive work environment. Obviously, however, these steps had not been adequate.

As a result of the Aberdeen case, the Army surveyed 30,000 soldiers in 1997. It discovered that sexual harassment was still common "throughout the Army, crossing gender, rank and racial lines." The Army blamed poor leadership among commanding officers, who often did not take complaints seriously. The Army and the other services soon redoubled their efforts to prepare commanders to aggressively eliminate any environment that seemed to tolerate sexual harassment.

Interestingly, both critics and defenders of women in the military used the Army survey to try to prove their point. The critics said that sexual harassment would not be a problem if men and women were once again segregated into separate units with different roles. The defenders, however, called for even more integration of women into combat positions. They argued this was necessary to do away with the disrespect shown by many males who seemed to view their female counterparts as second-class soldiers.

Harassment of Gays

For many years, homosexuals could not legally serve in the armed forces. But in 1993, Congress and President Clinton compromised on a new policy that permitted gays in the military as long as they did not openly proclaim their sexual orientation. This "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy satisfied few, but it did enable gays to lawfully pursue a military career.

For a while, the military services did little to stop harassment of soldiers who were believed to be gay. Then in July 1999 a shocking crime took place. A soldier used a baseball bat to beat to death Barry Winchell, a 21-year-old Army private. During the attack, the soldier shouted anti-gay names at Winchell. Following this brutal murder, Secretary of Defense William Cohen ordered the Inspector General to survey the extent of anti-gay harassment in all the services.

In the spring of 2000, the inspector general reported that 80 percent of service members surveyed had heard derogatory names, jokes, and other offensive anti-gay remarks. Nearly 40 percent said they had actually witnessed or experienced harassment because of a soldier's perceived sexual orientation.

Strikingly, most service members also believed that their superiors tolerated such behavior "to some extent."

Cohen formed a group of senior civilian and military leaders from each service to develop a plan to root out the harassment of gays. The group concluded that, "Treatment of all individuals with dignity and respect is essential to good order and discipline." The resulting Department of Defense plan made commanding officers accountable for vigorously enforcing new anti-harassment measures. One of them required that commanders take action against anyone who engages in, condones, or ignores any "mistreatment, harassment, and inappropriate comments or gestures" against military personnel who may be gay.

According to the Defense Department plan, the real threat to the military is anti-gay troublemakers, not gay soldiers. At the press conference announcing the plan, Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki stated that harassment violates human dignity and destroys military unity. "Whatever else Private Winchell may have been," Shinseki concluded, "he was one of us."

For Discussion and Writing

  1. Do you agree or disagree that women should be fully integrated into combat roles in the military? Why?
  2. What is sexual harassment? Why do you think it became so common throughout the military services?
  3. Do you think gay men and women should serve openly in the armed forces? Why or why not?
  4. What do you think can be done to prevent harassment of women and gays in the military?

For Further Information

Sexual Harassment in the Military A bibliography of resources.

Issues and Controversies: Gays in the Military


Sexual Harassment at School

While much sexual harassment in the military and workplace has been eliminated in recent years, schools are just beginning to deal with this problem. One major national survey found that 85 percent of girls and 76 percent of boys had experienced some form of sexual harassment at school. In 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that schools could be sued if administrators and teachers are aware of sexual harassment among students, but do little to stop it.

(Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education.) In this case, a fifth-grade boy persisted in touching a girl's breasts and making remarks like, "I want to go to bed with you."

Courts and legislatures are developing legal definitions of sexual harassment. Student-to-student sexual harassment is usually defined as unwanted behavior of a sexual nature that interferes with the victim's right to get an education. Below is a list of student behaviors. In small groups, discuss each of the listed behaviors, vote on each one to decide whether it should be considered sexual harassment at school. Be prepared to report back your answers (along with reasons for each decision) to the whole class.

  1. A boy follows a girl every day, making lewd comments about her.
  2. A group of boys like to sit together at lunch and loudly tell dirty jokes about the cheerleaders.
  3. The names and phone numbers of certain girls are written on a wall in the boys' restroom.
  4. A group of girls spread a rumor that another girl "sleeps around."



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